Carla Barrow, LMFT
Politically Diverse Couples - What Do We Do Now?
If you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ve seen some historic events unfolding. Politics is in motion, and what we’ve seen may be just the tip of the iceberg. While some individuals are kicking their heels with excitement and doubling down efforts to push for more change, others are gnashing their teeth with frustration and mobilizing for alternate rebellion.
I know. I live in a purple family. We all still talk to each other, and thus far have managed holidays and celebrations without warfare, but it hasn’t always been comfortable. There have been some walk-outs (particularly where alcohol fueled debate) and some shut-downs (conversations halted to keep the peace), but so far nobody to my knowledge has been banished or cut off forever.
We are not alone in navigating the tension. A Wakefield Market Research Report from 2017 found that, since the 2016 Presidential election, there was a marked increase in relationship break-ups caused by political differences. They estimated that 11% of Americans ended a romance because of politics.
Political science researchers at four universities also found that political debate has become more “dehumanizing” and that politically mixed couples can begin to think of their partner as less evolved in their thinking. This can happen even with same party couples where one spouse questions the other’s political loyalty because it’s not quite left or right enough – for example, where one spouse is an “anyone but Trump” Republican; or, in my case, when I play devil’s advocate with my husband, suggesting acceptance of at least a part of an opposing viewpoint.
So, what’s a couple to do?
For assistance with that question, I turned to Psychotherapist Jeanne Safer’s recommendations in I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics. Safer has lived 40 years in a politically mixed marriage and written and spoken on the topic extensively, including with her Republican husband. Her 2019 book includes numerous vignettes based on 50 interviews with couples from a myriad of relational configurations (couples/parents/siblings/friends), so that there’s something for almost anyone struggling with negative political override.
Some of my key takeaways from Safer’s work are listed below. They are integrated with lessons from my learning as a marriage and family therapist trained in Gottman Couples Counseling (Level III). My hope is these pointers will show you that not all political gridlock leads to separation and divide. Perhaps, with the tips, you will find ways to turn away from the political poison in your relationship, toward a more satiating antidote.
Seek First to Understand. Notice You are Not in Control.
Safer asks each of us to deeply consider what shapes our own political attitudes, and to willingly understand enough about the makeup of our partner, to see that factors shape the dynamics of their political discourse. She suggests that the worst political rifts stem from our attempts to control and rewrite our partners’ opinions and political views, rather than co-exist with them.
In her own politically diverse marriage, Safer learned to focus on her husband’s day-to-day actions (being kind, helping family and friends, expressing concern for others), rather than his political slogans, to remind herself why she valued their union. She offers up the “chemotherapy” test (How would your partner be with you or a loved one struggling with cancer? If empathic in this situation, are they really a political monster?).
Drop the Compulsion to Force Change.
Safer suggests that most political fights in intimate relationships are not about politics but about our personal compulsion to change dissimilar views to align with our own. If, however, we challenge ourselves to listen for insight, without first commanding change from our partner, poisonous beliefs about each other may settle long enough to escape what Safer calls “compulsive political fighting.” After all, the differences at play likely preceded political events since 2016 and will endure long after.
Safer invites readers to give up an agenda of convincing, changing, and recruiting others to our political perspective, adopting instead a paradigm of civility, where we can listen beyond political buzzwords to the values, beliefs, fears and experiences that underlie our partner’s opposing views.
Listen, Even Beyond the Trigger Point.
Although Safer contends there are few marital resources or interventions available for politically turbulent couples, I find the principles of Gottman Couples therapy easily adaptable to Safer’s recommendations. Two such interventions which come to mind are the Gottman Listening Exercise, and a somewhat similar exercise called the Gottman-Rapoport intervention.
In an article written shortly after Trump was elected President in 2016, Dr. Juli Gottman, alluded to of the primary elements of the Gottman-Rapoport intervention to avoid political “othering” in the State of Our Union article:
“We have to listen without jumping down each other’s throats. Really listen. What have they experienced? What have they suffered? Why are they so angry? And even more important, what is their greatest fear? For it is fear that has driven this election. Fear of job loss and poverty, fear of being out-paced, out-educated, out-smarted, out-tech-ed, out-majority-ed, out-numbered, out-classed, out-holy-ed, out-gendered, out-colored, out-powered. So many fears. Fear leads us to pull inwards. To duck our heads in ignorance and cover it all up with anger.
Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I do believe the only way forward is to listen, and “listen good.” Listen to “other,” and not just the ones we resemble. Listen until it breaks our hearts. Listen to the pain, the fear, the drowning. Ask questions. Pay attention. And only when we’ve deeply understood the “other,” whoever he or she is, brings up our own ideas to consider.”
Regulate Emotional Responses and Establish Limits.
In moving from Listening to Dialoguing about political hot potatoes, Safer prescribes common sense strategies such as monitoring and regulating our emotional responses. This can mean being conscious of our tones of voice, how much alcohol we’ve drank, and timing.
We also need to realize that what often comes out most hostilely (and I would add, impulsively) in political fights are unmet emotional needs of the past. When masked in political rhetoric, such triggers can be explosive in the relationship, but when unpacked and dealt with as personal values, aspirations or fears, the topics can be more approachable, and feel less like walking through a landmine.
Gottman Couples therapy offers an elegant tool called Dreams Within Conflict that addresses precisely these areas. Typically, once we’ve worked through the exercise, couples are better able to articulate areas where they can or cannot negotiate. From there, a politically divided couple may fashion rules of (dis)engagement to suit their tolerances.
Speak for Yourself. In Gottman Couples therapy terms, we identify hostile, rude, “better than thou” communications as contempt, the most dangerous among four communication strategies (the Four Horsemen) that destroy marriages. The others include criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling, which also prevail in political communication breakdowns. To counter contempt, we suggest that couples describe their own feelings and needs rather than attacking their partners and minimizing them because of their beliefs. In couples’ sessions, there is often the instruction to use an “I statement” versus a “You” statement. My partner is a lot more likely to listen when I speak for myself and what matters to me instead of berating them for thinking differently.
Gentle Start Ups. Safer is also keen to remind us that even good faith efforts to “educate and inform” our partners on the issues by barraging them with articles and information not only frequently backfires but explodes. The same is likely with gloating, lecturing and interrogating. In Gottman terms, this fails the golden rule of using a gentle start up, and renders it more likely to engender conflict, not conversation.
Negotiate. Choose, don’t Blame. To straddle wide divides, the “how” of engaging in political discussions matters. Safer emphasizes that each couple needs to explore their own limits and find their own unique way of negotiating treacherous areas. She warns that “relentless hope” must be abandoned. Relentless hope is the belief not only that you can change someone else, but that you must. It’s essentially saying, I’d rather be right than in a relationship.
In Gottman terms, the couple’s divergent political views may be seen as “Perpetual Differences”, which his research has found comprises about 69% of couple arguments. In perpetual situations, problem solving usually results in an impasse unless the couple is willing to find ways to negotiate around the conflict.
This requires a willingness to set aside differences for the benefit of maintaining and nourishing what each has in common and what each appreciates in their partner. Some use humor, some choose not to discuss politics at all or in limited ways, some limit time and disengage when efforts go awry, and some split up, choosing political views (which may be steeped in religious, financial or traumatic roots) over the relationship.
Do What’s Effective for Your We-ness.
It’s important to emphasize that negotiation is not denial, nor sweeping matters under the rug, nor capitulation: it’s making a conscious decision to choose what’s effective to maintain a “we-ness.” That we-ness falls away when one partner insists there is only one way to be right, and that’s their way. This approach often overlooks that, as a couple, we have numerous ways of interrelating, only some of which are political.